I was going to challenge myself to write this piece with only a passing mention or two of the Golf GTI Clubsport. But I’ve decided this is impossible. Instead, I’ll get it all out of my system right now. Well, most of it.
Anyway, a couple of years ago I ran a Tornado Red five-door DSG Edition 40 Clubsport for four months. And I adored it. The fettled GTI looked great with its tweaked aero package, was plenty quick enough with 286bhp on tap, and thanks to suspension tweaks combined with a standard-fit electronically-controlled ‘VAQ’ differential, it was tremendous fun to drive.
The two-seater, limited-run Clubsport S may have worked its way into the hot hatch history, but the standard Clubsport worked its way into my heart. I always considered it to be about 90 per cent as entertaining and capable as an FK2 Honda Civic Type R when you were pressing on, but about 10 times less irritating under any other driving circumstance. As an all-rounder, it seemed near-unbeatable.
It’s difficult, then, to avoid inwardly hyping the new VW Golf GTI TCR into oblivion. On paper, it looks very much like a Mk7.5 Golf-based reincarnation of ‘my’ beloved Clubsport: it too makes 286bhp, and it’s also had some tweaks levelled at the suspension and aero sides of the equation.
In some ways, it trumps its predecessor. While the Clubsport had an official output of 261bhp and only made 286bhp for 10 second bursts via the odd ’overbost’ function, the TCR develops that figure whenever you fancy putting your foot down. Fitted with the newer seven-speed DSG automatic gearbox (there isn’t a manual option, I’m afraid), it’s able to accelerate a little quicker, dispatching 0-62mph in 5.6 seconds compared to six seconds dead. It’s faster at the top end too, being able to hit 162mph if you tick the ‘Vmax’ option.
The recipe is extremely similar, however, and that’s problematic, as the hot hatch world has moved on considerably since the Ed. 40 arrived on the scene. The FK2 Civic Type R has been discontinued and replaced with the easier-to-live-with FK8. Mercedes-AMG has unleashed the A35. And most dramatically, the Hyundai i30 N came out of nowhere and made many well-established rivals look a bit silly.
The landscape in which this car exists hasn’t just shifted outside the brand: VW itself has dropped the standard GTI and the GTI Performance is now more powerful, developing a handy 245bhp. So the jump between the king of the ‘normal’ GTIs isn’t as big as it was for the Clubsport, which is perhaps why the first time you go full throttle in the TCR, what comes next isn’t as explosive as you might like. I can’t help but wonder why the TCR hasn’t just been given the R’s more potent version of the EA888 inline-four turbo - does VW really need to worry about protecting the Mk7 hierarchy this late in the day?
Regardless, it’s a fine engine, with that wonderfully smooth, surprisingly linear power delivery we’ve come to admire, along with a pleasantly muscular induction noise. The sound coming out the back is slightly fruitier as well, thanks to the retuned stainless steel exhaust.
Tweaked EPAS software has brought with it a newfound sense of urgency to the steering, while the 5mm drop on new springs and retuned dampers means the whole car is just a little stiffer and more focused than a GTI Performance. On the road, though, you’re probably going to want to avoid the ‘Sport’ mode for the (optional) adaptive dampers - it makes the ride much too busy. Stick with the individual setting and turn everything up but the suspension, which you’ll want to leave in ‘Normal’.
Body control is then extremely impressive, with the TCR appearing to shrug off moments on the test route close to Portimao where the road forgot to… be road. Even after hitting these dodgy bits of tarmac - which rather alarmingly do appear mid-corner from time to time - this enlivened Golf settles down extremely quickly.
Like in any GTI, the dual-clutch gearbox is a good fit. VW manuals are slick enough but not the most mechanically satisfying things to shift, so stick isn’t something that feels sorely missed here. The seven-speed DSG is a highly effective transmission to have in place of a traditional three-pedal layout, although it’s irksome that even in manual mode it will shift up for you at the red line rather than let the engine hit the limiter. Boo.
It’s undeniably a good car to drive, and a very likeable one. It’s just that I was expecting… more. Given that this is supposed to be road-going Golf GTI’s link to its racing car cousin, it seems a shame VW didn’t go all out, building something that would have given the Mk7 version of this hot hatch dynasty a real high point. Unlike the Clubsport, there isn’t - from the sounds of it - going to be an even more hardcore version of the Mk7.5.
Then we have to talk about the ‘VAQ’ clutch-based diff. It was a revelation when it first emerged, but the supremely sticky front ends of the aforementioned FK8 Honda Civic Type R and Hyundai i30 N demonstrate that there’s now a whole new level of traction possible for cars like this.
In the TCR, I was always left a little wanting in this regard - the VAQ system seems to rely on the stability control system subtly metering out the power, but switch everything off and the front Pirelli P Zeros will want to light up and send you wide each corner unless you’re careful. You can spec one of these with Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 semi-slicks - and indeed the cars we drove on track were optioned thusly - but it’s unlikely many buyers will go for such an extreme tyre for daily use.
While the enhanced looks from the new splitter, side skirts, rear diffuser, spoiler and optional graphics will win many over, I can’t help but think the Clubsport (sorry, I’ll stop mentioning it soon) looked better with those simple but effective side stripes and that almost comically large boot spoiler. On the plus side, the microfibre-clad sports seats in the TCR are particularly lovely, and I’m always a sucker for a because racecar red 12 o’clock steering wheel marker.
We don’t have UK prices for the car yet, but judging by how much it’ll be going for in Germany, it should be around £34,000 when it lands here. That’s only just under VW Golf R money, but this is a car that’s much more interesting to drive, and much more special. The standard spec should be pretty generous too, giving it a fair chance of winning over lovers of the GTI brand. Make no mistake, there is plenty to like here. It’s just hard not to see this as a missed opportunity to make something truly memorable.